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Who Is Listened To? Science and Science Journalism

Posted Feb 14 2013 12:00am

This book review  of Spillover by David Quammen is quite unfavorable about Laurie Garrett , the Pulitzer-Prize-winning science journalist. Several years ago, at the UC Berkeley journalism school, I heard her talk. During the question period, I made a comment something like this: “It seems to me there is kind of a conspiracy between the science journalist and the scientist. Both of them want the science to be more important than it really is. The scientist wants publicity. The science journalist wants their story on the front page. The effect is that things get exaggerated, this or that finding is claimed to be more important than it really is.” Garrett didn’t agree. She did not give a reason. This was interesting, since I thought my point was obviously true.

The book review, by Edward Hooper, author of The River, a book about the origin of AIDS,  makes a more subtle point. It is about how he has been ignored.

When I wrote The River, I did my level best to interview each of the major living protagonists involved in the origins-of-AIDS debate. This amounted to well over 600 interviews, mostly of two hours or more, and about 500 of which were done face-to-face rather than down the phone. Although the authors of the three aforementioned books (Pepin, Timberg and Halperin, Nattrass) all devote time and several pages to The River, and to claims that I definitely got it wrong, not one of them bothered to contact me at any point – either to challenge my findings, or to ask me questions. However, I have been contacted by someone through my website (a lawyer and social scientist) who asked me several questions, to all of which I responded. Later, this man read the first two of these three pro-bushmeat books and contacted the authors of each by email, to ask them one or two simple questions about their dismissal of the OPV hypothesis [= the AIDS virus came from an oral polio vaccine]. His letters to Pepin, Timberg and Halperin (which he later forwarded to me) were courteous and non-confrontational, and in two instances he sent three separate letters, but apparently not one of the authors could be bothered to reply to any of these approaches.

In other words, there is a kind of moat. Inside the moat, are the respected people the “real” scientists. Outside the moat are the crazy people, whom it is a good idea to ignore. Even if they have written a book on the topic. Hooper and those who agreed with him were outside the moat.

Hooper quotes Quammen:

“Hooper’s book was massive”, Quammen writes, “overwhelmingly detailed, seemingly reasonable, exhausting to plod through, but mesmerizing in its claims…”

I look forward to the day that the Shangri-La Diet is called “seemingly reasonable”. Quammen and Garrett (whose Coming Plague has yet to come) write about science for a living. I have a theory about their behavior. To acknowledge misaligned incentives (scientists, like journalists, care about other things than truth )  and power relationships (some scientists are in a position to censor other scientists and points of view they dislike) would make their jobs considerably harder. They are afraid of what would happen to them would they be kicked out, placed on the other side of the moat? if they took “crazy” views seriously. It is also time-consuming to take “crazy” views seriously (“massive . . . exhausting”). So they ignore them.

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